“Never Judge a Book by Its Hugo Award”—A Review of To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
Is there such a thing as life after death? It’s a question that a lot of people have pondered for as long as humanity has had the capacity to do so. Though the question can be answered with a “yes” or a “no,” for those who believe there is an afterlife, the kind of afterlife that one can expect depends entirely on one’s own beliefs. Most people think that there is some kind of reward-and-punishment system in the afterlife: the good are rewarded, the bad are punished. Some other faiths argue that this life is already hell, and if we do move on after death, it will be to someplace better; if we haven’t learned the lessons we need to learn, we just come back to live through another lifetime on this plane. For yet others it’s not so structured: they’re certain it’s a happy ending, somehow, but they’re not sure what it is, precisely — and they like it that way.
And, because humanity has been thinking about the afterlife for as long as it has, it’s practically inevitable that there should be books written about it. Many are philosophical in nature, and a lot more are religious, but there are those fictional books that try to tell us what lies beyond this life and in the next one. The most notable of these is, of course, Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, wherein the persona takes the reader on a full tour of hell, purgatory and heaven. Lots of other writers from other genres have played with Alighieri’s take on the afterlife, though others have gone to other cultures for their works: Kim Stanley Robinson, for instance, uses elements from Tibetan Buddhism for his portrayal of the afterlife in The Years of Rice and Salt.
But what if we’re all wrong — and by all, I mean even those folks who don’t believe there’s life after death? What if there is, but it’s nothing like any kind of afterlife we’ve ever imagined? What if that afterlife is something far, far more than simply the eternal bliss so many belief systems promise? And what if, in that afterlife, we are still as human — meaning, as flawed and weak and broken, albeit emotionally and mentally, not physically — as we were in life?
Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in the Riverworld series, attempts to put a new spin on a possible answer to an old question. In it, people from all points of history — many famous, but also a great many ordinary people — wake up on the banks of a river. Those who died of old age or past the age of twenty-five are restored to the bodies they had at twenty-five, and cease to age. Those who died before reaching twenty-five are given the bodies they had when they died, but age quickly until they are reach the body they would have had at twenty-five, at which point they stop aging as well.
Among those people is Sir Richard Francis Burton, who quickly decides that it is up to him to solve the mystery of the Riverworld, and find out what is really going on.
The main reason I picked up this book (and the four others in the series) is because of the concept. Based on the blurb it was obvious that the whole scenario was some kind of massive social experiment conducted by an alien intelligence of some kind, but everything else wasn’t quite clear. Why choose Burton as the protagonist? Who else was resurrected, and how would they react to this new world they live in? How do they survive? Does Burton find the answers he seeks? And how does he, who was quite the nonconformist during his own lifetime, and proud of it, besides, will deal with this new environment and the people around him? I wanted to see how Farmer planned to answer those questions, and see what kind of story he’d make out of them.
And I did get the answers to those questions — sort of. While the premise of the novel is incredible and fascinating enough to get a reader into the book, the execution of it all leaves something to be desired — or rather, a lot to be desired.
When I start reading a book, I go into it assuming that the writer knows where they’re going to take the story. I also assume that they’ve got a handle on all the characters who speak more than two lines in the course of the novel, but most especially on the protagonist/s and any other supporting characters that might turn up. Of course, I don’t mind if a story rambles, or if a few minor characters don’t quite live up to their full potential, as long as the plot goes somewhere and the main characters are not too objectionable. Unfortunately, To Your Scattered Bodies Go does not live up to those expectations, and has some other issues, to boot.
I’ll start with the characters. I was very intrigued by Farmer’s choice of protagonist: Sir Richard Francis Burton was a character, even by the standards of his time, and had he been alive in the twenty-first century he’d still probably be as notorious as he was in the Victorian era during which he lived (except he’d probably have his own reality show and would be constantly hounded by paparazzi). While I know that it’s impossible to accurately recreate the personality of any historical persona in fiction, I do expect said fictional representation to have the same depth and complexity that any other properly-written fictional character would have. This is especially true with supposedly-eccentric characters like Burton, whose larger-than-life, unconventional personalities make them too easy to write as caricatures of themselves.
The problem is that Farmer doesn’t quite manage to do that. His characterization of Burton is, frankly speaking, rather boring. This annoys me because Burton was, as I mentioned, quite the character when he was alive, so it should take quite a bit of convoluted writing to make someone who was practically a real-life adventure hero into something absolutely dull. And yet, Farmer somehow manages to do just that. There is something that feels half-baked about Burton’s characterization, like Farmer relied on shorthand popular knowledge and a short encyclopedia article about Burton’s life and simply went from there. The whole thing reeks of sloppy writing to me.
And speaking of encyclopedia articles and shorthand popular knowledge, it feels like Farmer did the same thing when writing about the other cultures he mentions in the book. There is a deeply racist undercurrent in Farmer’s writing, especially when he’s writing about pre-colonial African, Native American, and Polynesian cultures. If he wanted to, Farmer could have gone out and done some proper research, instead of relying on stereotypes. As with his depiction of Burton, this speaks of sloppy writing.
Farmer’s characterization of the women in his book is equally sloppy, and particularly horrific. His characterization of Alice Hargreaves, especially, took me to new levels of pissed-off: I don’t think I’ve been that angry at the way a female character was written since Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey. And this isn’t counting the other female characters who are not white, which was worse since Farmer layered on both misogyny and racism when writing about them. The only good thing was that they were largely minor characters, and so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time reading about them.
But what really makes me grind my teeth about this whole thing is that Farmer has no excuse for being as racist and misogynistic as he is in his writing. Ursula K. Le Guin was doing non-racist, non-misogynistic writing at more or less the same time that Farmer wrote and published this novel, so there was already precedent for that sort of writing. If Farmer had chosen to do a bit more work, take a bit more care with his characterization, I think this would have been a remarkably tolerable novel. As it stands, though, it’s almost painful to read, and the only reason I kept reading it was because I wanted to see how it ended.
As for the rest of the story, well, that’s problematic too. While the concept that Farmer started out with is very interesting, the execution of it left something to be desired. It’s already clear from the blurb alone that the whole thing is supposed to be some kind of grand experiment, so all I was reading the book for was Burton and the expectation of finding out who is behind the whole thing, and why they’re doing it in the first place. Except getting to that point takes the whole initial three-fourths of the book, with most of the revelations being made in the last fourth — and those revelations are, in fact, inconclusive, because one needs to read the next novel in order to find out what happens next. Not only that, but the novel rambles in a way that isn’t very fun at all — mostly because Burton is a great big bore as a narrator, for reasons I’ve already mentioned.
Overall, To Your Scattered Bodies Go seems like a very promising novel, given the concept, but the execution is absolutely terrible. Not only do racism and misogyny run rampant throughout the whole thing, but it’s very clear that Farmer didn’t really take the time to do the necessary research or appear to make any kind of effort to make any of his characters truly compelling, nor does he do the same for any of the cultures that appear throughout the novel. Even Burton, the main narrator for the novel (who tells the story from third-person limited perspective), is a dreadful bore to read about, which consequently affects the rest of the novel and makes it all a dreadful bore, too, until one gets to the last one-fourth of the book. By then, however, only the most stubborn reader would have made it past the gauntlet of every other problem this book has, only to get an unrewarding ending that urges the reader to go on to the next book — which will, most likely, only contain more of the same dreadful things the first book has.
Indeed, as a friend of mine remarked after finding out why I disliked this book so much: “Never judge a book by its Hugo Award.” That is definitely something readers should keep in mind when looking into this book, and the others in the series.